Taking Terror Fight to N. Africa Leads U.S. to Unlikely Alliances

Amari Saifi lay handcuffed, surrounded by guards, after his capture by Chadian rebels in March 2004. U.S. officials have cited his case as a model for terrorist-hunting operations.
Amari Saifi lay handcuffed, surrounded by guards, after his capture by Chadian rebels in March 2004. U.S. officials have cited his case as a model for terrorist-hunting operations. (By Alvaro Canovas -- Paris Match)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 28, 2006

ALGIERS -- Locked in a prison here, for now, is a desert bandit dubbed the "Bin Laden of the Sahara," whose capture was secretly orchestrated by U.S. forces after a long chase across some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth.

Amari Saifi, 37, a former Algerian army paratrooper, was caught in 2004 after he and a band of rebel fighters kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara and ransomed them for about $6 million.

Since then, the U.S. government has cited his case as a model for terrorist-hunting operations and a justification for expanding U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence programs in North Africa.

A close examination of how Saifi was apprehended, however, highlights the quandaries facing the United States as it extends its fight against Islamic terrorism to remote parts of the globe. In its search for allies in an unstable region, the U.S. government reached out to Libya -- then still officially designated a state sponsor of terrorism -- and to other countries it has condemned for abusing human rights.

Some security analysts and European counterterrorism officials question the U.S. strategy. They contend the Pentagon may be inflating the importance of Saifi and the terrorist threat in both the Sahara and an equally large and desolate region to the south known as the Sahel.

By sending troops and partnering with repressive governments, U.S. tactics could backfire, said Hugh Roberts, North Africa project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"The idea that you could have major jihadi units holing up there always struck me as implausible," Roberts said. "The quickest way to generate a jihadi movement is to send some U.S. soldiers in there to swagger around. The more visible the U.S. military presence, the bigger the target."

The hunt for Saifi lasted more than a year and nearly unraveled at the end, despite a joint operation among the U.S. military and seven countries, according to counterterrorism officials in North Africa and Europe. He was caught by happenstance, by a ragtag rebel army in Chad, as he fled his pursuers across the desert.

Although Saifi was finally transferred to Algerian custody, there are signs that he may not be in prison much longer. After giving him a life sentence last year, the Algerian government said this spring it might release him under an amnesty program, reflecting doubts as to how big a threat he posed in the first place.

Regardless of Saifi's fate, U.S. officials say they consider North Africa an increasingly strategic front. With weak governments and poorly patrolled borders, the region has already attracted Islamic radicals looking for a place to set up training camps and spread their ideology, officials say.

Together, the Defense and State departments are devoting $500 million to new counterterrorism programs in the region. Last year, the Pentagon sponsored Operation Flintlock, the largest U.S. joint military exercise in North Africa since World War II. About 700 U.S. Special Forces personnel trained troops from nine African nations, leading a war game that mirrored the effort to hunt down Saifi a year earlier.

"The threat is evolving," said Rear Adm. Richard K. Gallagher, a top commander at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, which is responsible for most of Africa. "Africa, for a lot of reasons, is a place that we've got to care hugely about. We ignore Africa at our peril."

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